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In ‘The Barber of Little Rock,’ one man takes on the racial wealth gap

Mandile Mpofu

Arlo Washington sits in his car, a backdrop of greenery visible through the window behind him as he gazes ahead. “I’m on a mission, and it ain’t over,” he asserts. A momentary pause follows before a look of determination flashes across Washington’s face, and he continues, “It’s just begun.”

This striking scene concludes “The Barber of Little Rock,” a heartfelt documentary short that follows Washington, an African American barber and entrepreneur, in his pursuit of closing the racial wealth gap in Little Rock, Arkansas. This moment, right before the screen turns black and a funky tune erupts, emphasizes the long road ahead, not just for Washington but for everyone combating economic injustice in America.

Executive-produced by basketball great Dwyane Wade among others and acquired by The New Yorker, “The Barber of Little Rock” is part of a cohort of five 2024 Oscar-nominated documentary shorts, in which it stands apart as the only film centering a singular person and his ambitions.

It begins with a voiceover of Washington defining economic justice — “having a real opportunity” — and introducing “the never-ending story” that is the ever-expanding racial wealth gap. Even as Black wealth increased during the pandemic, the racial wealth gap widened. In 2022, Black households held $15 in wealth for every white household’s $100, according to the latest Federal Reserve data.

In 35 minutes, “The Barber of Little Rock” underscores this disparity through its thoughtful storytelling, with one man calling it not a wealth gap, but a wealth “chasm.” Inspired by his mother’s sacrifices, Washington, who is clearly passionate and gritty, has set out to close this chasm. He runs a barber academy where he delivers lessons in more than just cutting hair — but the story’s focus is on People Trust, a nonprofit community bank Washington founded to “build the community.”

The organization is one of 1,500 community-development financial institutions (CDFIs), a title screen states, and offers financial lifelines in the form of micro-loans to community members, some battling grueling circumstances and others seeking a path into entrepreneurship.

“The Barber of Little Rock” is as sincere as its main subject. Directors John Hoffman and Christine Turner present the narrative with restraint and a light-handedness that does not detract from the story and never sensationalizes or dramatizes the individuals who so vulnerably share their financial struggles with Washington.

Turner and Hoffman are seemingly unconcerned with visual symbolism or aesthetics, and instead choose to portray the situation as is, for better or worse. They achieve a stripped-down stylization that depicts Washington as a breath of fresh air, a glint of hope in an underserved area of Little Rock plagued by economic injustice, but never positions him as a lone savior.

The filmmakers are careful not to overshadow Washington or his community with cinematic takes, and instead allow their stories about the challenges of “banking while Black” to remain at the forefront. The result of this unembellished approach, enriched by an entrancing score by composer Jongnic Bontemps, is an earnest portrait of wealth inequality and the effects of the unfulfilled promise of “40 acres and a mule.”

“The Barber of Little Rock” can be viewed for free on The New Yorker’s website. The film is a considered and vital addition to the discourse around economic injustice, heralding the resilience of Washington and his community in the face of an uphill journey toward generational wealth.

arts, documentary, film, racial wealth gap, The Barber of Little Rock